Last week my youngest daughter flew from Orlando, FL to Europe. She’ll be spending about 2-1/2 months in Lille, France to round out her gap year between high school and college. In honor of her French adventure, I decided to review a couple of books by expats in France.
Almost French, subtitled Love and a New Life in Paris, was written by Sarah Turnbull. An Australian journalist, she met Frédéric while traveling in Eastern Europe, visited him in Paris, and ended up making a life with him. She explains:
“I left Australia hoping to cram a lifetime of adventures into one unforgettable year. Instead, I ended up with a new life. … The idea was to immerse myself in fascinating foreign cultures, to work as a freelance journalist in Eastern Europe, whichin my mind bubbled with unwritten, hard-hitting stories.
“When [Frédéric] invited me to visit him in Paris, I’d hesitated just long enough to make sure he was serious before saying yes. Why not? After all, this is what travelling is all about, isn’t it: seizing opportunities, doing things you wouldn’t normally do, being open to the accidental?
“That trip to Paris was more than eight years ago now. And except for four months when I resumed my travels, I have been living here ever since.”
Turnbull wittily describes her introduction to French life, her realizations that the French are different, and her growing appreciation for what she found. And what she found was a society that demanded propriety, that was largely uninterested in her until she’d been among them for several years, that expected standards of dress, grooming, manners and table setting completely alien to her informal Australian background. A society where introducing oneself at a cocktail party was scandalously bold!
“Coming to terms with this emphasis on appearances is tough. … In France, vanity is not a vice. Rigorous self-maintenance is imbued from bith – it’s a mark of self-pride. … Men are expected to pay close attention to their appearances as well. The loaded phrase, “se mettre en valeur” is used all the time. It means “to make the most of yourself.” This is not something the French do when they feel like it: they do it every day. Sloppiness in appearance is condered a fatal disease. Once it takes hold, you’re on an irreversible downhill slide. You’ve committed the unforgivable. You’ve let yourself go.”
She and Frédéric disagree over visits to his home in the north. To him, it is normal to spend at least one weekend a month with his father in the town where he grew up, surrounded by extended family. She finds the northern part of the country ugly, and is very uncomfortable immersed in his family’s rituals. The beaches of his home area bear no resemblance to the hot, sunny, sandy Australian beaches in her native Sydney.
She spends his friends’ dinner parties crying in the bathroom after being treated like a piece of furniture for hours. Her only female friends are expats like herself.
When she considers getting a dog, she notes that Parisian dogs are treated better than Parisian children.
“Where I grew up, dogs are dogs. … But in Paris, a city of roughly two hundred thousand dogs, … canines lead lives that are remarkably similar to their masters. They stay in chateaux-hotels and have expensive haircuts. A night out means dressing up and dining at fine restaurants. What makes this unrestrained spoiling even more bizarre is that it’s totally at odds with the strict discipline the French mete out to their kids. While children are expected to sit rod-straight at restaurants, eating and conversing like little grownups, dogs are babied andindulged, perched on velvet stools and hand-fed from plates.”
Gradually, Turnbull’s perceptions change. She starts seeing beauty in the northern landscape, and fits in better with Fréderíc’s family and friends. She finds that the Parisian system of neighborhoods allows people of different walks of life to be known and accepted. She sees value in the French habit of never letting oneself go. She recognizes that a woman who initially looked through her at dinner parties has become a friend. She has become almost French.
American Mark Greenside, on the other hand, freely admits in his title, “I’ll Never Be French.” His book chronicles a vacation in Brittany which led to an impulse purchase of a house there. After years of being an American renter, he is now a French homeowner, splitting his time between the two countries.
The French people he meets in the tiny Breton village don’t bear much resemblance to the Parisians described by Turnbull. Despite his almost total lack of French language skills and his sloppy personal appearance, his neighbors take him under their collective wing. They share meals, introduce him to the community, Madame helps him find and purchase his house and saves him from wasting a lot of extra money hiring one contractor over another. Nevertheless,
“If this were the end of a story, things would reconcile, add up, I would add up, or at least have direction, there’d be no loose ends, and the end might take you back to the beginning. But this isn’t a story, it’s my life, and the French and American sides don’t easily fit. When I’m in France, I see how American I am. In the US, it’s the reverse. I now try to bring the best of my American self … to France and the best of my French self … to America, and often fall short in both places.”
Almost French was published in 2002, I’ll Never Be French in 2008. The people and lives they describe are very different. I’m left wondering whether Parisians are really so different from Bretons? Did French people change so much in six years? Do the French treat scruffy men better than informal women? I suppose all of these are true and none of them are true.
The bottom line is that we bring to any life experience the sum total of our personalities, experiences, education and training then try to make sense of the results. And that is true whether we still live in the town where we were born, or a strange country halfway round the world.
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